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FREE! A Philosophy of time and space

by Suzanne M. M. Young

December 31, 2008 - Greetings one and all.
I know it has been a very long time, but I have been too busy to write. Sorry about that! Being the Tactical Science Plan Integrator and squeezing in time to start thinking about our amazing WCL data and what it means towards biohabitability on polar Mars kept me more than busy for many months.

The mission was quite a time — I mean that both figuratively and very literally - as we worked on Mars time for months.  I was entirely immersed in Mars operations until the very last day of the mission (primary and extended included) and then dove straight into pouring through piles of our data, so in many ways, I still feel I am re-entering Earth in time and space and re-connecting with all the world.  As these are always my travel-logs, I’m back on a plane again.  We just had our 16th Science Team meeting — the first one since the end of Phoenix operations on Mars, as well as a terrific day of Phoenix results at AGU (American Geophysical Union) Conference in San Francisco.  Our posters were up all day long, as well as our PI being given the Shoemaker award, a plenary speech, a press conference, and leading an afternoon session on many of our mission observations and results.  It was very exciting to see how many are interested in what we have done.

For me it all seemed to begin in a whirlwind as fast as the dust devils we saw on Mars.  I was MCing a part of the public party exactly during the landing.  We had been taught that it could be as long as 40 minutes before we had confirmation of being landed because communication from Phoenix to obiter to Earth depended upon alignment.  In the planetarium above my head we were broadcasting the JPL mission control center while the landing was happening.  I had been answering loads of questions and telling stories about our mission coming together along the way.  I just started to explain to the audience that it could be time before we have confirmation of being landed when Richard at JPL started the count in distance to Mars.  I lost track completely of where I was (and honestly I don’t think I have regained it since!), and whispered “oh-my-God!”  The audience laughed and I thought, “Oh, dear me, I can’t be up here in front of all these people while this happens!”  So, holding my breath, I started backing down to the back of the planetarium with my eyes glued to the screen just like theirs, and it went so fast 50 m, 27m, 18 m, 10 m,…..landed.  I was just saying it could take 40 minutes, then it seemed to be just seconds to land before I even finished my sentence!  I was rushed back to our SOC where the private landing party was taking place, I hugged 2 colleagues at the entrance and was just getting into the room of our own celebration, when someone came and grabbed me and said that data is coming down — NOW — get to work NOW!  The first pictures of Mars were all right there —nice stable foot pad on Mars, open solar panel, and a shockingly beautiful image of a desolate field of polygons.  I was just in awe of how lovely it actually looked and there we all stood in the SOC staring at the screen like a window onto Mars — the first images ever seen so close of the polar region.  It was utterly awesome.  To me it all went rush-rush-rush-rush — actually like being whipped through space to that first quiet moment of staring at Mars as through a window — we were there through the eyes of our robot lander.  And I’ve been there, interacting with Mars through our robot, until just last month when our robot got rather cold, our extended mission concluded, and I slowly tried coming back to Earth.

We lived and worked on Mars time during the primary mission.  Mars time is 24 hours and 37 minutes.  I LOVED Mars time.  It was the most comfortable schedule I’ve ever worked in my life.  I wish I could do it always.  We had a mini-workshop on how to work with Mars time during our meetings before landing to get ready for it all.  I feel we were given wrong advice, because it was counter to the way we’d be living on Earth.  The place they really went wrong was to tell us it can’t really be done!  Going in with that attitude…..dear, oh, dear.  Just not good.  If you believe you’ll succeed, then you will.  If you believe you won’t succeed, then you won’t!

I ignored absolutely everything I was told and just dove in and embraced Mars.  I was now on Mars — period!  I made up my own rules.  I got up 3 to 4 hours before my shift began.  I did contact with the outside world (only family and very special friends), exercise like pilates, and mentally refreshing things, made a salad to take to work for ‘lunch’ and had a lovely breakfast.  I decided against playing my cello — even though I had rented one — I feared disturbing neighbors — and instead took up learning Italian.  Having discovered Italian was the only language ever specifically selected to unify the communication of the lands — but a dialect over 200 years old at the time — selected for its beauty — well, I had to learn some.  Beauty is always worth having in life.  So I’d do my lesson and wander around my little apartment speaking Italian and putting post-its with Italian words for all my furniture and clothes and dishware and so forth.  I bet you didn’t know they spoke Italian on Mars, did you!?  I always went to work happy and refreshed, excited and ready for the sol.  I ate exactly the kinds of meals I’d eat in a normal Earth day — regardless of time on Earth.  I never even glanced at Earth time.  I got up to smoked salmon, just like at home.  I ate nice salads at lunch, just like back at Tufts.  I had lovely dinners and a glass of wine after work.  However long I worked, I always made sure to have a bit of downtime before bed — even if I worked 16 hours and had only time for some yoga and reading poetry in a lavender bubble bath.  

My very favourite time was when I got out of work in wee hours of the Earth morning, so I could go for a walk as dawn broke.  I lived up in the foothills of some mountains and right across the street from me was a horse farm.  I love watching the black mountains emerge from a black sky growing brighter. And I enjoyed greeting the horses as they began stirring — and maybe sneaking some apples or carrots to them too!  And then, best of all, sitting on my private patio with some antipasti and a glass of Chianti (in keeping with my Italian lessons!  One should embrace whatever one does!) watching the sun rise, then going to bed.  It was just so pleasant in the gentle, hot Tucson breezes.  

I had one rule for bedtime, I always checked my next shift and did not go to bed earlier than my next shift would end, so that, while working, I never hit a moment when my body decided it should be resting.  I checked my next shift, counted back at least 3 hours for my ‘morning time’, counted back 8 hours for my sleep, then decided what time was rise time and what time was bedtime.  Only once or twice in 3 months did I have fewer than 8 hours sleep.  And with 40 extra minutes per day, even with long work days, I nearly always managed to slip in some healthy break time before or after work.  

I’m naturally a night person, and so sleeping a little bit late every day as Mars time slid around the clock was utterly wonderful.  I never felt more natural on a schedule before.  My philosophy was simply that I was on Mars and Mars time — live it.  I didn’t try to cut out parts of life or live in a duel world.  I did what was right for my time of sol.  When I was in Japan, I never responded to what was happening in New England’s time of day, so on Mars, Tucson’s time didn’t factor in. I think the folks who really struggled were ones who tried to live in more than one place at a time.  The very best part about Mars time was I did know about Earth time — it would be dark or light or sunrise and sunset when I went to work or emerged from work.  So I’d see it.  And I did know numerically what Earth time was as I counted out my hours and set an alarm each day.  But even with those numbers — I’d often not know a.m. or p.m. in Arizona.  But that was so completely freeing! I knew it numerically, but it was so irrelevant. The best part of all was this massive philosophical shift about time it all caused.  After 3 months and circling the clock a couple times — I have officially lived every part of life at every time of day — I have done everything at every time of day.  Never before has time ever seemed a more human-made artificial construct. Even being back on Earth time now, I haven’t lost this incredible freeing sensation that time doesn’t matter. I used to have silly thoughts about times of day and what to do when.  I used to look at my watch to see if it was a good time to do whatever I was wishing.  I never do now.  I just live now.  I feel entirely like anything at any time of day is fine.  I’m utterly free of this previous constraint.  Working on Mars is very Zen, in ways!  By necessity, I set myself free in the physical world, and as a result, I became free internally forever.

I learned that I love sunrises, too.  As a night person who gets up less than cheery each day, I never got into sunrises.  Now I know their utter beauty.  Mars time was also so natural for me, that despite setting the alarm every night, I nearly always awoke naturally before it went off.  I have never enjoyed that perfect sensation of just waking ready for the day and rested until Mars time.  It was perfect.  During operations, I discovered beauty at every time of day.  And I’m still now enjoying an exploration of all times as no time — no constraints.  It is what it is and all things are right at all times — whether it’s work or play.  It feels great.

WCL (Wet Chemistry Laboratory), the instrument on which I labored for several years, ran with a scoop of Mars for the first time on sol 30.  Despite working so hard for everything we did, every instrument team, and every science theme group during all operations, both primary and extended, I’ll never forget that day of seeing things work so well.  I was just amazed at how clean the signal was and how definitive.  I had worked with geologic samples that take a long slow time to leach their soluble ions — even days.  Our sample of Mars hit the water and salts dissolved in seconds.  It was easier than most of what I had run in a laboratory.  It was also instantly more interesting than what I had run in a laboratory!  We found nearly a percent of perchlorate — to a chemist who has dealt in ppm, ppb, ppt, ppq (parts per million, billion, trillion, and quadrillion) for decades — something even in the first decimal place of a percent seems utterly humongous!  That’s serious salt!  That’s lick-it-and-taste-it levels of salt….not that I promote licking these salts!  Anyhow, after all these years of work and running the instrument on Earth over and over and over with so many kinds of geological samples that my colleague Dick Morris gave me and samples that I manufactured myself, it was stunning watching the first data plot from Mars — and the second, third, and forth too!  It was another time, space felt bent because it was so much like the lab work I had done, yet somewhere in my mind was that fact it was 80-million miles away.  Operating through a robot interacting with another planet never feels far away at all.  It really was driving a few blocks from my apartment to go to work on Mars.  Robots made space seem no more important than time.  It’s quite a sensation!

Even working 113 sols of the first 120 sols, I never felt tired or worn out.  The only time I even got tired was when we had to get back on Earth time.  But being in sync with Tucson around me meant that I also got out and made some wonderful local friends.  I wore 3 watches for a time — one Mars watch, one Earth watch, and one was not a watch — just looked like one and monitored my movement during operations.  Try explaining to someone out in public why you’ve got a row of watches and that you work on another planet!  That’s an interesting conversation!  I was completely free, but time and space still constrain the rest of the world!  Next time I’ll conclude with “Someday you’ll understand, grasshopper.”

I stayed on for much of the extended mission, and then even when I returned home, I was putting together our science plans and doing our Science Integration job right from my library or my den.  A little piece of my home in NH became a branch of mission control — dialed right into the computers in the SOC and being on an all day telecom.  So space bent again as a wee corner of New Hampshire interacted with Mars — albeit through computers, the internet, the deep space network, and orbiters all relaying signal…..but honestly, it never feels that way.  I wish I could have stayed on Mars time even once I was working from my home.  I was fully tied up until early November, and so I did not teach any courses this semester.  I had nothing to actually pin me down to Earth’s days.  I still rarely know which day of the week it is!  That will all change in mid-January as I get back to teaching Analytical Chemistry.

Be free of time and space!
And a very happy New Year!